Writing & Talking about the History of Fashion

The Sheep At Wolf Hall

The BBC’s adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s prize-winning novels – Wolf Hall and Bringing Up The Bodies – has won critical acclaim in the press, but I’ve spoken with many people who are less than convinced about this slow-moving drama that is figuratively and often very literally dark. Wolf Hall is certainly one of the more compelling series on British television at the moment, but amidst the praise there have been repeated murmurings to the effect that the leading characters and their clothes are just a little bit bland. To make a metaphor of the courtiers’ taunt towards Henry VIII’s mistress, there is a sense that everything is as flat as Anne Bolelyn’s chest.

In many respects the BBC’s Tudor court is spot on for today. It presents the leading public figures as cautious egoists, who crave direction and validation from aids, advisors and lawyers, chief among them Thomas Cromwell. The documentary re-runs of David Starkey that we watched at school, along with the glamorised Hollywood histories that hopelessly muddled chronologies, have little prepared us for such striking political contemporaneity. In his portrayal of Henry VIII, Damien Lewis deliberately sought to avoid the ‘womanising, syphilitic, bloated, genocidal Elvis character’ that has become engrained in the nation’s consciousness.[i] Lewis’ Tudor Titan is presented in a more sympathetic, even human, light. There is merit in this interpretation and approach, for many historians now acknowledge that Henry VIII’s riding accident in 1536, which left him temporarily unconscious and with an ulcerated leg that caused intolerable pain for the remainder of his life, affected his character and rule. That said, the king’s ‘Elvis’ persona did not balloon from nothing. In his youth there were signs of who, and what, Henry could become.

The artful aggression of Henry VIII was shown most strikingly in his elaborate, embroidered and bejewelled clothing. The ability and significance of Tudor dress to demarcate social status is used to great effect by Hilary Mantel in her novels. She contrasts the increasing luxury of Thomas Cromwell’s wardrobe, to demonstrate his political and social ascendancy, with the sartorial impoverishment of that belonging to Cardinal Wolsey, to signal his eclipse. In the BBC’s re-formulation of Mantel’s tale, much of this crucial clothing detail has been lost.

Inevitably, perhaps, it was the show’s diminutive codpieces that most disappointed viewers and the verifiers of historical accuracy. Lucy Worsley, Chief Curator of Royal Historic Palaces, expressed her satisfaction with the series’ authenticity, but lamented the men’s small fabric appendages, which were apparently scaled down so as to avoid confusing American audiences.[ii] But circumscribed codpieces are not the only sartorial cut-back. More generally, the dress of Lewis’ Henry VIII is demure. In some scenes it is barely distinguishable from that of the aristocrats in his orbit.

Documentary and record evidence reveals young King Henry frequently wore bright and conspicuous apparel. In 1515, the Venetian ambassador described the twenty-five year old monarch wearing a striped doublet of crimson and white satin. His hose were scarlet. His purple velvet mantle was lined with white satin and hung with garlands of gold.[iii] Evidence from the royal household accounts suggests Henry liked to wear contrasting colours and textures. He favoured ”fresh colours’, including yellow, white, orange and carnation.’[iv] Green, a colour associated with youthfulness and verve, was also popular.[v] Darker colours, not least black which retained its luxury associations from the medieval period, were worn frequently, but as dress historian Maria Hayward observes, ‘when embellished with ornate self-coloured embroidery, guards, slashing and passementerie it was far from understated.’[vi]

The clothes of flat-chested Anne were also a pale imitation of what this fashion trendsetter had actually worn. Her wardrobe suffered because historical authenticity was sacrificed so as not to alienate television audiences. Whilst Anne did wear a white cloth of gold robe for her ceremonial entry into London on 31 May 1533, at her coronation on 1 June she wore crimson and purple velvet.[vii] The white gown that Anne wears for her coronation in the BBC’s adaptation is a nod to contemporary clothing conventions that did not become widespread until the nineteenth century.

There is reason and merit in highlighting the many parallels that exist between the past and present, but as clothing has always been such a strong indication of social values and people’s roles, the muddles and misconceptions that arise when contemporary clothing notions are used to inform the dress of sixteenth-century people are great. If codpieces seem strange to a modern audience, that’s because they should.

[i] Anon, ‘The good side of Henry VIII’, The Week (17 January, 2015), 10.

[ii] Anon., ‘They got the spoons right – but what about the codpieces?’ The Week (17 January, 2015), 28.

[iii] M. Haywood, Dress at the Court of King Henry VIII (Leeds, 2007), 2.

[iv] Ibid., 11.

[v] Ibid., 121.

[vi] Ibid., 11.

[vii] A. Weir, Henry VIII: King and Court (London, 2001), 339-340.

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